In this week’s installment, we’ll look at five of the most memorable performance art pieces to have ever been performed in the last few decades.
Performance art, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a nontraditional art form often with political or topical themes that typically features a live presentation to an audience or onlookers (as on a street) and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music dance, or painting.” It is perhaps one of the most unusual forms of art, almost unheard of to the common person, yet it is without a doubt one of the most interesting things one could ever witness. This week’s top five list, which was based on The 25 Best Performance Art Pieces of All Time by Complex and presented here in chronological order, should be a good introduction for anyone who has yet to see a performance art piece, as well as a refresher to those who simply want to remember a fascinating piece they might’ve stumbled upon before.
4’3” by John Cage (1952)
4’33” is a musical composition – without the actual music. Or any sound at all. Cage’s “silent” piece debuted in August 1922 at the Maverick Concert Hall in New York, with pianist David Tudor sitting before a piano. It’s pretty simple: any performer/s who wished to reenact 4’3” must not deliberately make any sound during the full duration of the performance. According to The Museum of Modern Art: “When discussing the work over his lifetime, Cage emphasized that, rather than intending to simply shock his audience, he hoped to attune listeners to silence as a structure within musical notation.”
Cage’s piece has been performed several times since its debut, and the video clip above shows a full orchestral rendition of 4’3”.
Mishima’s Suicide by Yukio Mishima (1970)
Performance art pieces range from the uneventful to the extremely radical – with this one by Japanese writer-turned-political activist Yukio Mishima being a prime example of the latter. On November 25, 1970, Mishima stunned the entire world by committing seppuku, a form of ritual suicide performed by samurais, from a balcony in front of about a thousand servicemen at the Eastern Headquarters of the Ground Self-Defense Forces in Tokyo. That was Mishima showing his disappointment with Japanese politics at the time. We’re wary of linking a video clip of the actual “performance” here (not that we’re brave enough to actually check the results presented to us by Google!), but above is a video clip showing a part of Mishima’s speech prior to making his final performance.
I Like America and America Likes Me by John Beuys (1974)
When you go to a foreign country for the first time, the usual thing to do would be to go around and take in all the sights. But not German artist Joseph Beuys. The moment he landed at the Kennedy Airport in New York, Beuys was immediately covered in a felt blanket, loaded in a stretcher, and wheeled inside an ambulance headed for the René Block Gallery. He spent three full days in a room there, with only a wild coyote for company! Beuys was said to have “perform[ed] actions both necessary to preventing harm to himself and carrying a symbolic weight for the viewer.” Beuys was led out of the country the same way he got in. The video clip above explains the performance art piece, narrated by Kyle Nordlinger.
Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramović (1974)
Perhaps some of us would know US-based Serbian artist, the “grandmother of performance art” Marina Abramović through one of her more recent works, The Artist is Present (2010). Rhythm 0 was one of Abramović’s early works. For six hours, Abramović stood unmoving in front of a table on which was placed 72 different objects such as honey, rose, and even knives, scissors, and a loaded gun for the audience members to use on her however they’d like. You’d think that people would go easy on her; however, Abramovíc actually ended up being cut and stripped naked. One participant even took the gun, had Abramović hold and aim it at her neck! This not so surprisingly triggered a ruckus, and when the entire performance was over, Abramović was said to have “calmly broke her trance-like state and walked directly towards the crowd, which quickly dispersed.”
Watch Abramović talk about Rhythm 0 in the video clip above.
Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance by Tehching Hsieh (1980-81)
Most of us would probably go bonkers if even try to attempt what Taiwanese US-based artist Tehching Hsieh did in this piece. The title is pretty much self-explanatory, as he explains so himself, “I punched [a] time card every hour, on the hour in the studio.” Dressed in gray pants and a long-sleeve shirt, Hsieh would also mark the passing time by taking self-portraits using a 16mm movie camera and exposing each frame at each punching. This, however, isn’t the only one-year-long performance that Hsieh did during the course of his career as he staged a total of five in the ‘70s and the ‘80s.
Watch Hsieh himself talk about the idea behind his “life work” in the video clip above.
Additional information about each of the performance art pieces in this article were sourced from The Museum of Modern Art, The New York Times, History of our World, Guggenheim, and the Marina Abramović Institute.
Like this article? Check out our Top Five List series in the Lomography magazine!